Friday, August 20, 2010

'House of Cards'

My wife and I just finished watching the fourth installment of the 1990 BBC miniseries, House of Cards, with Ian Richardson as the manipulative Francis Urquhart. Richardson managed to be both hilarious and chilling as he played the Conservative Party whip--"I put the stick about. Make 'em jump"--who murders, lies, conducts whisper campaigns, blackmails, and seduces his way toward becoming prime minister.

Even as amoral as Urquhart seems to be, throughout the series he often is nonetheless at pains to rationalize his sins and crimes to his silent co-conspirators, we viewers, to whom he confides everything. You almost sense that Urquhart is dealing with a Biblical truth, that God's law is actually written on our hearts, no matter how hard we may try to erase it or ignore it.

Two sequel series, each based on the novels of Michael Dobbs, were made, which I also remember enjoying back when they first aired.

House of Cards is as interesting and as deft a portrayal of the darkest precincts of human ambition as you're apt to find anywhere.

We watched it on Netflix streaming through our Wii console. I recommend both Netflix via Wii and House of Cards.

There are some very brief spots in House of Cards that were unnecessary, I thought: crude language, sexual depictions. This isn't family fare. But overall, it's not only entertaining; it's also insightful.

Beware of your inner Francis Urquhart!

How do we grow up in Christian faith?

"How do we grow beyond being just spiritual babes?" is a question asked in this wonderful piece from Our Daily Bread.

The answer given by Bill Crowder, the piece's author, is to regularly meditate on God's Word and to devote ourselves to prayer.

I would add one more element to that answer, something which is indispensable to the growth of our relationship with Christ and which is pure gift. It's regularly receiving the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion.

In Holy Communion, Christ both bodily and spiritually imparts Himself to us and in God's mysterious way, works within us, making us over into His image.

One must be careful, though. None of these three things--meditating on God's Word, prayer, or Holy Communion--are works that we human beings undertake.

A good way to picture them might be as roaring fires blazing on cold nights that we, racked by exposure to wind, snow, and ice, happen upon. We can walk away from the fires. Or, we can move toward them and allow them to warm us. We warm ourselves--literally come alive and grow in life--when we move to God's Word, prayer in Jesus' Name, and taking the body and blood of Christ when offered to us.

But we don't start those fires and we are incapable of stoking them. Growth in faith is not the equivalent of a weekend spent in retreat with a motivational guru, irrespective of the impression one might get from some preachers these days. You could do motivational self-talk until you were blue in the face, telling yourself, "I will be a better Christian," and you won't have faith, let alone a growing faith.

Christian growth is dependent on the same thing that faith in Christ is dependent on in the first place: The action of God in Christ and our surrender to Christ. Nothing less. 

Last week, in an ecumenical service at a local senior activities center here in Logan, I spoke of the importance of growing up in Christ. I haven't yet posted it, but hope to do so soon.

This is a really important topic. Most contemporary Christians are as some first-century Christians in addressed by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:1-17.

Growing up in faith is one of the greatest challenges for Christians and the Church today. The Church is bedeviled by an alarming degree of spiritual immaturity--causing many churchgoers to accept teaching and practice that run directly contrary to Scripture. And that, in turn, means that the Church ceases to play the role that it, and it alone, was called, commissioned, and commanded by Jesus Christ to play. If we don't play that role, millions of people risk losing out on the eternal salvation that comes through faith in Christ alone. But, if the love of Christ even flickers within us, that is just too horrible a prospect to consider!

Martin Luther and the 16th-century reformers led a movement that insisted that every Christian, lay and clergy, is part of the priesthood of all believers, each of us in direct relationship with Christ, each of us participants in Christ's Church, each of us commissioned to make disciples, and each of us given the privilege and the responsibility of being God's spokespeople in the world and humanity's advocates before God.

When we meditate on God's Word, when we devote ourselves to prayer in Jesus' Name (including the confession of sin, praying for others, and asking that God's kingdom will come to us and all the world), and when we regularly receive the body and blood of Jesus, we dance by the life-giving fire of the Holy Spirit, we let God call the tune and animate our every moment, the Holy Spirit brings growth and maturity to us, and God empowers us to play the role Christ has given to us.

By these means, God puts our wills in sync with God's will. By these means, we bear witness to the new life that can come to all through Christ. By these means, we grow as Christians, come what may. Come what may.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vacations?

Taking a vacation from God is like taking a vacation from oxygen or food. Check this out.

'Pray the Devil Back to Hell'

That's the title of a wonderful documentary about how, in the late-90s and early-2000s, Christian and Muslim women prayed and non-violently lobbied for peace in their land of Liberia. Liberia, as you may remember, was in those years, racked by a civil war, mass killings, and a tyrannical government under Charles Taylor. In that terrible period, the congregation I served as pastor prayed for peace in Liberia. Those prayers, I'm so thankful, were answered.

Watch this movie and be inspired!

By the way, we got a copy from NetFlix to watch at home.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Set Free!

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Galatians 4:1-7
A woman I worked with years ago, a Roman Catholic, was trying once at the end of a workday, to clarify what Lutherans believe about Mary, the mother of Jesus. “You don’t think she was a virgin, right?” she asked. I was surprised, but assured her, "No, we say that Jesus was 'conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary' when we worship on Sunday mornings, just like you do."

I guess that I shouldn't have been too surprised though, because, oddly enough, there’s always been a lot of misunderstanding and disagreements among Christians over Mary.

Today, August 15, is a special day on church calendars all over the world. For our Roman Catholic friends, this is the Feast of the Assumption, commemorating the day they believe that Mary was taken up into heaven, rather than dying.

Lutherans find no Biblical evidence to support that such an event took place. But we do believe that, like other saints whose days we remember each year, Mary has a lot to teach us about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

We also are amazed by the way in which God used this young teenager from an obscure village to bring the Messiah into the world.  Mary herself was amazed by that and amazed too, that, based on her own experience, God so obviously cares about the eternal destinies of all the world’s "ordinary" people. (One thing we know for sure, though, is that while we all may be "ordinary" people, God's love for each of us is extraordinary!)

In today’s Gospel lesson, composed of the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise which comes during her visit with Elizabeth, Mary sees God reversing the fortunes of both those who trust in God’s grace and of those who trust in the "gods" favored by most in the world. God, she says, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”

Mary understood that in Jesus, God was turning the world on its head, ensuring that eternity will belong not to those who claw and take and scheme and reason their way to power or prominence or influence or other worldly advantages, but to those who trust totally in Christ.

Our Gospel lesson came up this past Advent Season. So, I want to turn our attention away from it and, in a move of which I think Mary would approv, away from Mary, toward the Lord she served.

Pull our your bulletins, please. In the very middle, you’ll find the text of our second lesson, expanded by three verses from what’s officially appointed for today. It’s Galatians 4:1-7.

Galatians, you’ll remember from our sermon series based on that book earlier this year, is a letter written by preacher and evangelist Paul to a church in an area that we know today as Turkey. The letter was written back around 50AD. The church in the city of Galatia was composed of Gentiles, that is non-Jews. Paul was anxious to refute false teachers who told the Galatian believers in Jesus that in order to be truly saved from sin and death, they not only needed to believe in Jesus, but also had to adopt Jewish religious law, like circumcision for men and certain food and feast days for all.

In Galatians, chapter 3, which immediately precedes our lesson, Paul has asserted that we justified in God’s eyes not by what we do, but by our faith in Christ; that all who are baptized in Christ are clothed in His forgiveness and the righteousness—or rightness with God—that Jesus came to give those who trust in Him; and that in Christ, all who repent and believe in Him, have the same status before God.

Then, at the start of chapter four where our lesson begins, Paul comes up with a great way to illustrate what religious law, even the Ten Commandments, can and, most importantly, cannot do toward securing a right relationship with God for we sinful human beings. Read those first two sentences from Galatians—verses 1 and 2--with me out loud now.
“My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father.” 
What Paul is saying is that before God acted decisively by sending Jesus to the cross to take our punishment for sin, paying the debt we owe, our world was kept under control by the laws of God. The law acted as guardian and trustee over people too immature and too imprisoned by sin to live life the way God designed it to be lived.

Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says that this passage shows how the story of the human race before the arrival of Jesus was one of “people who stand to inherit a fortune (of sorts) but who are quite unaware of the fact.”

In the meantime, like a parent hemming in toddlers who are bound to get themselves into trouble otherwise, God gave His law as a way of keeping things under control until the time was right.

This was true even of non-Jews who had never heard of Moses or the Ten Commandments because, as the Bible reminds us elsewhere, God has written His law on our hearts. No matter how much we may try to deny it, violate it, or excuse our breaching of it, the whole human race knows that there is a law of right and wrong.

One evidence of this may be that while human laws may be unjust or designed to serve the interests of certain groups, even the most corrupt of dictators will claim that his law conforms to a notion of right and wrong that all his citizens would agree on without having ever discussed it. That's because our  notions of what's right and what's wrong come from God; it’s the law of right and wrong we all seem to know that hems our world in, at times just barely, from total chaos.

This is exactly what Paul is talking about when he writes in the next verse—read along with me silently:
“So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” 
Now, for some people, that’s the end of the Christian story. They think that being Christian is about trying to live according to some rules, or trying to be nice people, or working to never make anybody upset or mad, or to fighting injustice. All of those things should be part of daily living for Christians. We should try to obey the law of God and, to glorify God and make the lives of our neighbors bearable, abide by the rules of society. We shouldn’t go out of our ways to cause strife or arguments and we should by all means fight injustice.

But none of those things, however faithfully or impeccably executed, will transform you and me from minors or slaves in need of constant goading or hemming in by the law of God into the free inheritors of all that God wants to give to us. As Martin Luther writes in his commentary on this passage, “…mere outward decency does not constitute Christianity.” He goes on to explain, “The heathen observe the same restraints to avoid punishment or to secure the advantages of a good reputation. [But in] the last analysis such restraint is simple hypocrisy.”

It’s in the next two sentences, verses 4 and 5, that Paul gets into what can move us from slavery to becoming children of God, from minors hemmed in by God's law to heirs set free by God, inheritors of forgiveness and everlasting life with God. Read those next two sentences with me aloud, please.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”
That phrase, “the fullness of time,” is important. The New Testament, including Philippians, was written in Greek, as you know. In Greek, there are two main words for time. The first is chronos, which refers to chronological time. The other word is kairos, which means God’s time. Paul is saying that at the right time, at the precise moment chosen by God, after everything had happened that needed to happen, God acted to free us, to give us our inheritance.

And how did God do that? He sent the Son, Jesus. Jesus came from God and was God. But, He was also born of a woman, voluntarily born subject to the same law to which you and I are subject. Only Jesus perfectly kept the law so that when the law accused Him and put Him on a cross, it had the wrong guy. When Jesus was executed for our sins, Jesus redeemed—that is bought out of slavery all of us who live under the law. The result is that we are God’s children no matter what!

Paul does some celebrating in the last two verses of our lesson. Read along with me—with all the enthusiasm the words deserve, please:
“And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” 
Ever been desperate enough to cry out to the God you know in Jesus, but not been sure what to say? Then know this: In those moments...in those moments when you knew that there was no one and nothing else you could turn to...that God’s Holy Spirit was telling you something. The mere impulse to pray demonstrates that you belong to Christ! Your desperation proves it because it's only in desperation that any of us are truly open enough and humble enough to admit our need of the God Who loved you so much that He went to a cross, open enough and humble enough to receive the inheritance of life and forgiveness we can't earn, but that God gives to all who trust in Christ. May we always be that desperate!

Your conscience need never accuse you for sins you committed and for which you already repented!

You need never think that because you aren’t perfect, God doesn’t care about you!

The Savior you somehow just know can reach out to in your times of desperation, Whose Spirit prompts you to do just that, will stand by you and love you now and always!

The Savior Who came into the world to share our lives and deaths so that all with faith in Him can also share in His victory, His life, and His eternity with God, wants you to know that you are no longer hemmed in, no longer a slave to sin, no longer a minor pining for the day when you will be acceptable to God.

If you are baptized and trust in Christ alone, you are absolutely acceptable to God! And no one can take you from your Father's hands! In Christ, we are free to be God’s people, free to look forward with confidence to the certainty of eternity with God.

In his commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther quotes Saint Augustine, a great Catholic theologian revered as much by Lutherans as Catholics: “every [person] is certain of [their] faith, if [they have] faith.” Luther goes on to write, “We ought to feel sure that we stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through [what Christ has done for us]. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God, so sure ought [the believer in Christ] be that we also please God, because Christ is in us.”

This was the faith that sustained Mary: faith in Christ and the good will of God for those who trust in Him. May that be our faith too!